stressEmployees who face high emotional demand and conflicting roles are more likely to report psychological distress — placing them at higher risk of mental health disorders and reduced productivity, reports a study in the June Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, official publication of the American College of Occupational and Environmental Medicine (ACOEM).

Håkon A. Johannessen, PhD, and colleagues of the Norwegian National Institute of Occupational Health, Oslo, used nationwide survey data to look at how the psychosocial work environment affects employees’ levels of psychological distress. Sixteen percent of workers said they were at least slightly bothered by psychological distress — including symptoms of depression and anxiety — over the past month.

The study focused on two main risk factors: role conflict, such as being given work tasks without enough resources to complete them and receiving contradictory requests from different people; and emotional demands, defined as “dealing with strong feelings such as sorrow, anger, desperation, [and] frustration” at work.

Perceived role conflict and emotional demands were “the most important and most consistent risk factors” for psychological distress. Problematic levels of distress were 53 percent more likely for workers reporting role conflict and 38 percent more likely for those facing high emotional demands.

Other risk factors were low job control, bullying/harassment, and job insecurity. “We estimated that one-fourth of employee psychological distress was attributable to self-reported adverse work-related factors,” the researchers write.

Psychological distress may represent early anxiety and depression, and has been linked to decreased job productivity and absenteeism. Other psychosocial working conditions have been linked to distress, but the new study is the first to highlight the importance of role conflict and emotional distress. Dr Johannessen and coauthors believe the identified risk factors should be a key focus of efforts to improve the psychosocial work environment — and thus promote good mental health and productivity among employees.